Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov is world renowned for the brilliant The Master and Margarita but if you go back to the start of his writing career you get a slightly different but still hugely enjoyable experience.

The main difference with A Country Doctor's Notebook is that it starts in 1916 when the war is the background but the revolution and the Stalinistic oppression that hung over the rest of his writing has not yet arrived. As a result you get an insight into a country of extremes - light and dark is Bulkgakov's metaphor - with vast differences between cities and the countryside.

Sent as a newly qualified doctor to head up a rural hospital with a staff of two midwifes and an assistant the main character and alter-ego for Bulgakov heads away from electricity, telephones and civilisation to a remote world where the weather and the roads can make a six mile journey take all day. This is an environment where ignorance about medical matters among the peasants is supporting the spread of syphilis and people fail to follow their courses of medication because they simply cannot grasp what the doctor is telling them.

But the stories about individual cases, used to illustrate the experience of being a country doctor, are told with a degree of warmth and humour that makes you stick with the story and grow to like the main character. Of course he can be boorish and arrogant but underneath he shares his constant insecurity about his lack of ability and inexperience with most medical crises.

The small hospital is not just a learning ground for him in terms of medicine but also as a man as he copes with facing the demons of isolation and loneliness for months on end. By the end he is not only a much more competent doctor but also a better observer of human nature.

For all but a couple of chapters the story focuses on the remote country hospital but once the main character leaves and heads back into civilisation to a larger city-based hospital there is a shift in direction. Now he uses the stories of others, both doctors, to illustrate the dark side of being in such a remote and isolated situation at such a young age as well as introducing the theme of the revolution and the battle for control of Russian in the civil war.

The last couple of chapters give off the sort of feeling that most of his work would have following the arrival of Lenin and his friends with a tension and fear that is not apparent before starting to creep in. It makes the earlier stories about the country hospital ones that can be seen with a degree of sentimentality.

The Russia described in the first two thirds of the book disappears not long afterwards under five-year plans and the persecution of rich farmers. There is a certain irony that just as Bulgakov starts to find his writing wings and soars with this descriptions of rural Russia the full stop at the end of the book is not just his return to the bright electric lights of the city but a stop to an era stretching back hundreds of years. You sense that not long after the ink dried on writing this book it became in large parts a work of almost instant history.

Published by The Harvill Press, 1995
Translated by Michael Glenny

Friday, January 17, 2014

Going for a Russian lit/history focus

Having been thinking about things now for most of this week the decision that has been reached is to opt for an area that I could read about all year with great happiness. As a result this blog will now be covering Russian literature and history.

Both of those areas are real passions and I think that having a focus will make it easier to keep the reading and the blogging going. I have read a few of the Russian greats but there are still plenty out there and as well as the classics I'm hoping to get into some more modern stuff, depending on what has been translated and is available.

The history theme is also going to provide me with a chance to have a better mix of fiction and non-fiction and provide an opportunity to occasionally complement the era used as the setting for a novel as a period of history to study in more depth.

To celebrate I have started reading A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov and am enjoying it immensely. Set during the First World War this is a rare Bulgakov where the spectre of Stalinism does not over shadow the tale and as a result you get a different take on Russia's problems at the time. The main theme is one highlighting the difference between rural Russia and life in the cities. The world that young Bulgakov is sent to to deliver his medical skills is dark in more than just the quality of the light.

Anyway hope things going forward will make more sense now this blog has a bit more of a direction.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No longer the everyman

Thinking about what this blog should be about has lef me to a few possible options. When I was a child I remember going into a stamp shop and telling the man behind the counter that I enjoyed collecting stamps. He asked which ones and I replied "All of them". He then laughed and said that most serious collectors specialised in one country or one period and that although my collection was a good one for a young boy it lacked any focus.

I often think of that same conversation when I think of this blog. At the start the idea was that I would record all the books I read. The broad remit was that after years of just reading non-fiction there was a lot of catching up to do and so I would pick up some of the greats and get thoughts down on those. It was also an attempt to try and capture thoughts that would otherwise have been lost as a result of my leaky memory.

But there are various problems being an everyman blog. It leaves you often without direction, makes it hard to engage with a specific online community and prevents any great analysis from ever developing as you jump from genre to genre and period to period without enabling too much comparison.

So thinking about what I like to read a lot there are a couple of stand out options:

Russian literature and history has always been a passion of mine and I would be happy to go down that route. Pros are that it would keep me entertained for a long time. Cons are that the books tend to be fairly gloomy and I'm not sure a sustained diet of Russian lit would be good for the soul.

History, specifically modern, is something that I have studied in the past and there is plenty of material here. The Pros are that you can really get stuck into some interesting things, like my current interest in the Vietnam War. The Cons are that the books tend to be long, dense, not always that well written for the lay reader and can be hard to share.

IThe third choice is of course to combine the two but I'm not sure how that would work.

Plenty of food for thought there and I hope to make a decision soon and change the blog strapline and get a more coherent focus.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Must try harder

It's hard to believe that when I started blogging I took great pride in the output and used to pat myself on the back for doing at least a post a day, if not sometimes multiple entries.

So when I see the total posts of last year only came to 10 it is quite a shock and a graphic illustration of just how far things have changed. There are several reasons why things have slowed down:

* Time - I just don't seem to have any of it anymore. As a result of running a marathon last year (first and only) and a couple of half marathons I seem to spend the little time I have donning lycra and trying to fight the bulge.

* Kids - I have a young son, not yet two, and it's hard reading and blogging when there are special moments to be had with him. Milo is a real joy and along with his brothers deserve my attention.

* Motivation - The drive that used to be there at the start has almost completely burnt out. I know that this will never be a blog attracting thousands of hits, my interaction with people is poor and there are so many better alternatives (see the blogroll). I'm comfortable with that but am still working out just what this all means for the blog going forward.

* Readers block - this is a really serious one for me. Last year I just couldn't read without feeling stressed and the result was that I only managed to read a handful of books and most of the time started and abandoned reading books. I'm not sure what this is all about but suspect that it is psychological connected to some of the other factors I have listed here.

If I have one aim for this year it is not only to fall back in love with reading but also to try and work out what this blog is for. It is something that I want to provide me with enjoyment, that hopefully can be shared, but right now it is doing little of that. Hopefully that will change and I will work out a strategy for 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Chickenhawk by Robert Mason

This is the second book about the Vietnam war I have read in recent weeks as I amble through the history of that conflict that might see me take in a couple more before moving onto another subject.

Just as with Matterhorn, which was written from the view point of an infantry solider who was out in the bush coming into contact with the enemy on the ground this is also a personal history that is used to tell a larger tale about the war. This time around the focus is on the air with a Huey helicopter pilot the narrator of a tour of duty that sees him go from a believer to a sceptic and from a functioning human being to someone crippled professionally by PTSD.

The points that come out of this book are similar to Matterhorn with the enemy regularly underestimated and an arrogance of those controlling the war to believe that firepower and body counts would win and grind down their opposition. But with people in the field like Bob Mason who were trying not just to make sense of orders but stay alive and fight their own demons the chances of success appear to be limited.

The book flows well and there is a benefit perhaps of having a year tour from August 1965 to July 1966, because it by default gives a structure to a large part of the book once you get past the before and share a little bit of the after story. There are a few photographs online but my edition could have benefited from having a few. There is also a slight need perhaps to provide brief thumbnails of what became of some of the people that Mason mentions regularly throughout the book. Not all finish their tours at the same time and are left behind in Vietnam and the reader is left a little bit in the air wondering and hoping that they all came through in one piece.

Each book about the war comes from a different viewpoint and that is true of Chickenhawk. But if you read enough of them then a picture starts to emerge of an army that had the best of soldiers but a level of ignorance about the way to fight the war and of a political and military machine bogged down in spin. The Tet Offensive blew away the idea that the war was almost over and revealed that the strategy of body count was not working. But until that point you are left in a world, like Mason, where there is optimism mixed in with speculation that turns out to be based on spin and hope.

Having read Matterhorn and now Chickenhawk and got tales of the war from the ground and the air its hard not to feel depressed about how these young men were taken into a war they knew so little about. The stories are there to be read and hopefully the lessons are there to be learnt.